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October 07, 2008

How Does One Paint a Martian Princess?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs created many more characters than the Ape Man and Jane. Over the years, I've probably read more of the John Carter of Mars series than Tarzan books.

Burroughs invented the supposed local name for the planet, "Barsoom," and some sources refer to the series by that name.

In brief, John Carter gets wafted off to Mars while in a sort of dream-state while lying helpless in a cave in the desert southwest. Being pretty heroic to begin with, he is able to exploit his Earth-based strength in the weaker Martian gravity to perform seriously heroic feats while the entranced reader hurriedly flips the pages.

Most or all of the Mars books are in the public domain. For instance, you can click here for the on-line Project Gutenberg release of A Princess of Mars, the first in the series. In that book, Carter encounters the beautiful Dejah Thoris, princess of one of Mars' kingdoms, who he eventually marries.

Okay. Assume that a new edition of the book is on the way. Cover art is needed. Lots of strange, dangerous Martian creatures. A sword-wielding hero. A gorgeous princess. A different planet. What should the cover artist do? As it happened, most or all of the above elements have been included by just about every cover artist hired for the Mars series. Some examples are below.


By Frank Schoonover - 1917
Schoonover, a top-notch illustrator, was trained by Howard Pyle in the early years of the last century. The scene looks vaguely Greco-Persian aside from what appear to be pistols on Carter's belt. Although he did advertising illustration and book covers such as the one shown, Schoonover's specialty was North Woods type scenes, this based on travels he made north of the Great Lakes around the time he left Pyle's school. Barsoom is far from the world of trappers and the RCMP -- and it shows, in this early cover.

By Robert Abbett - c. 1970
I suppose this was intended to be dramatic. But c'mon -- the princess seems bored or distracted rather than terrified or even concerned about the outcome of John Carter's fight.

A recent Penguin edition
A recent Townsend Press edition
In both cases, I wasn't able to find artist information. The Penguin cover seems more skillfully done. Like the Abbett illustration, we have a struggle going on, but Dejah Thoris clearly is not really part of that scene, even factoring in her shackles. The Townsend illustration doesn't show that she is the most beautiful creature on Mars; she hardly seems worth fighting for.

Oh well, enough farm team stuff. On to the goodies.

Frank Frazetta - c.1970
Frazetta practically owns the fantasy art franchise even though he has been retired for several years. Dejah Thoris and John Carter come off appropriately iconic. And if Carter's duel is already over ... well, who really cares; I'm too busy checking out Dejah.

I bought this circa 1963 book when it came out. (The illustration here seems to be for a recent, audio version; it incorporates the cover of the paperback edition and adds the strip on the right.) One reason I made the purchase was because the artist made Dejah Thoris a Believable Babe, though John Carter and the action aren't really great. Which might be intentional; the title of the book says "Princess" and not "John Carter."

I really, truly, seriously would like to know who the artist was, as I no longer have the book and the Internet source of the illustration didn't provide the information. And no, I can't make out the signature.



posted by Donald at October 7, 2008


I liked the covers done by Roy G. Krenkel for Ballantine Books. I've just checked out his work, it's truly impressive and drew praise from Frank Frazetta himself (according to Wikipedia "his splash page contribution to Williamson's “Food for Thought” (Incredible Science Fiction 32, November-December 1955), a highly detailed alien landscape, is often regarded as a peak achievement in comic book illustration."

Do you remember how ERB would invariably describe the rear ends of his female characters? I thought at the time it reflected personal preference but now I wonder whether it was a way of sneaking in a little sex, since he couldn't describe their busts.

I read all eleven Mars books, and I can hardly remember a word of them.

Posted by: Dav Laurel on October 8, 2008 1:27 PM

No Michael Whelan?

He did some wonderful Barsoom pictures including one with Dejah in the retrospective section of his website at

Posted by: Randy Stafford on October 8, 2008 1:40 PM

Love those Frazetta babes. I've got a few screensavers by him that make my blood pressure rise.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on October 8, 2008 2:00 PM

This guy lists the artist as Roger Abbet -- wiki, artist's website.

Posted by: whiskyprajer on October 8, 2008 2:27 PM

There's this version, which happens to be the only John Carter comic I ever purchased as a kid. Turns out there were a few comic adaptations of John Carter.

Posted by: Ted Craig on October 8, 2008 3:02 PM

Wow, this brings me back. I picked up a copy of A Princess of Mars at the public library, with the same cover as the one on the bottom of this post, in the Summer of 1975, between sixth and seventh grade. Thus began a lengthy love affair with the books of Edgar Rice Burroughs, especially the Martian series, whose eleven books I read repeatedly. So, I have a very warm spot in my heart for the book and for that particular cover.

The much-pondered question of how to depict Dejah Thoris, the most beautiful woman on Barsoom, yields no easy or obvious answer. Martian women are oviparous, supposedly, which makes the issue of breasts a brain-teaser. Call me parochial and limited, but to be the “most beautiful woman on Mars” the lady has got to have pretty nice breasts. But assuming the oviparous thing was a throwaway (Burroughs didn’t make much of it) we are still faced with nearly a century of poorly contrived depictions. Bottom line: None of the illustrators get it.

Given that they all fall short, the unknown artist of the 1963 Ballantine paperback, gets the closest. (Frazetta is great, but he is always Frazetta first, and whatever he is illustrating comes second. While he was perfect for the Conan books, he had no feel for the ambience of the Barsoomian books.) The Ballantine cover shows us an intelligent and athletic-looking princess, not a bosomy bimbo. Dejah Thoris is a warrior princess, not merely eye-candy, let alone a fainting, delicate flower. Women of the Heliumetic elite carried daggers. The books depict her as tough, brave and enterprising as well as beautiful. In any situation where John Carter had to draw his sword, Dejah Thoris would be alert, not shrinking or preening or screaming, and certainly not wrapped in a cape which would constrict her ability to fight. More likely, she would be hanging back from the fray, but looking for an opportunity to strike a blow of her own. All of the artists have failed to capture the high spirit of the princess in their depictions. Sadly, Dejah Thoris still awaits her true portrait-artist.

(Burroughs, for all his ultimate silliness, must be played straight or the magic does not work.)

Burroughs was light on his sartorial depictions, referring to the Barsoomians’ near-nudity offset by jewelry of “barbaric splendor”, and in the case of the men, harnesses from which their several weapons are hung. On that note, the Penguin cover is closest, perhaps, but it otherwise has nothing to recommend it, being cartoonish kitsch. John Carter’s attire looks close, though with a demure kilt covering his loins rather than “near-nudity”.

Incidentally, the Ballantine cover depiction of John Carter is the best of the bunch, too. He looks like a trim, fit, ruggedly handsome mature man. His prior career as a Confederate cavalry officer, as well as a deathless immortal warrior (another odd theme Burroughs did not make much of) is plausible on this cover.

Posted by: Lexington Green on October 8, 2008 4:06 PM

Hm. After taking another, closer look at this guy's site, it seems the illustration you originally attributed to Abbett might be the work of Gino D'Achille(?)

Posted by: whiskyprajer on October 8, 2008 5:51 PM

In the matter of space princesses, I'm partial to Ylin-Ylan the Flower of Cath:

I also like this cover for Brian Aldiss' "The Malacia Tapestry":

Posted by: Gurb on October 8, 2008 6:53 PM

Nice collection, inspired comparison. Fun to learn about the series of books too, which I knew nothing about. I wonder if I'm too old to get into it now ... Anyway, I re-read "Tarzan" out of curiosity about ten years ago and was blown away -- found it really really good. Do these novels hold up in any way?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 9, 2008 12:13 AM

On the subject of Frank Frazetta, I enjoyed this documentary about him ...


Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 9, 2008 12:26 AM

Frazetta wins.

Posted by: slumlord on October 9, 2008 3:13 AM

Michael, if you liked Tarzan, you might possibly get a kick out of the Mars books, especially the first three, maybe as period pieces.

I think it helps a lot to encounter Edgar Rice Burroughs when you are twelve years old, however. I don't think the magic works on grownups. For one thing, as a kid, you can read the most formulaic story, but not know how it is going to come up. You have not read a lot of books yet. You don't know the formula. You really are in dread that the hero won't rescue the girl in time.

In childhood and adolescence heterosexual males formulate a feminine ideal. No real woman can live up to it, which is OK, and figuring that out is part of growing up. Morag Hood playing Natasha Rostov in the BBC version of War and Peace was a big part of that for me. As odd as it may be, looking back, Dejah Thoris the brave, loyal and lovely warrior princess is woven in there, too.

Posted by: Lexington Green on October 9, 2008 1:10 PM

Frazetta did some wild covers for Burroughs' Earth's Core series, basically the same kind of thing as Mars, but set in Pellucidar, a Stone Age world hanging off the inside of Earth's surface.

The stories are preposterous, of course, full of coincidence, nonsensical characterizations, and lots of fun. Interestingly, Burroughs' books, including Tarzan, were the first exposure I had, outside of some iffy comic book lines, to genuinely horrifying violence.

In the first of the Pellucidar novels, there's a scene involving an encounter between a young slave girl and a very hungry member of the ruling reptile species, a Mahar. This scene is depicted on Frazetta's cover. It's genuinely chilling, and is written very effectively to maximize the sheer horror of the situation. Other scenes in the book are almost as shocking and horrifying.

Even Tarzan had its moments of real OH BOY THIS IS GROSS AND SCARY. The scene early when the young Tarzan witnesses the torture death of a white hunter by cannibals is an example. Oddly, I remember a lot of Burroughs' most horrifying scenes had this voyeuristic aspect. In both the Tarzan and Earth's Core scenes I mentioned, the protagonist is hidden and watches as the sick-making unfolds.

Hmmm...Burroughs was a strange man in so many ways.

Posted by: PatrickH on October 9, 2008 3:12 PM

The Penguin cover looks like it is pulled from the 70's Marvel comics run. If so, the artist is probably Gil Kane.

Frazetta is the best Barsoom artist except for the cover for Thuvia, Maid of Mars. That one goes to Whelan for his masterful rendering of the heroine's ass.

Posted by: chan on October 9, 2008 7:16 PM

Thanks, it was Abett, alright. I especially liked his rendition of Barsoomian airships.

Posted by: Dav Laurel on October 9, 2008 11:17 PM

And boy, did Frazetta ever have a talent for portraying some luscious porcelain badonkadonk.

Cavegirl booty, eh Charlton?

Posted by: PatrickH on October 10, 2008 10:36 AM

Frazetta was into some serious ass worship. As am I.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on October 10, 2008 9:52 PM

That third picture makes me think of Wonder Woman for some reason.

Posted by: SB on October 11, 2008 10:29 PM

Speaking of ass worship, if anyone else around here appreciates the illustrations of Frank Frazetta, there is a terrific collection here:


Posted by: Charlton Griffin on October 12, 2008 8:40 PM

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